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The History of Sarah-Jane- Chapter 1   The Cottage

There were seven of us at the cottage to begin with, seven chairs arranged around the kitchen table, seven pairs of boots lined up in front of the stone fireplace that dominated the cramped low-beamed room. A rug and some flowery curtains, and a jug of wild flowers picked from our steep garden brightened the kitchen. In the evening when the fire was lighted copper pots and pans reflected its warm glow. Next to the kitchen was another small room containing a pair of high-backed armchairs hidden under heavy cushions and a writing desk. A steep wooden staircase led to the upper rooms, one side of the house overlooking clear skies, the vegetable garden and some fields and the other the grey outline of the nearby town, a jumble of spires, rooftops and towering chimneys that stained the sky a threatening purple. Although the cottage was small, like the other stone buildings in our village, in those days we rarely noticed, except for during the months of snow, where the cottage was marooned like a ship lost at sea. Every day was a new adventure, whether it was wading in the fast-moving stream that divided our garden from the fields, in search of sea-monsters, building fortresses out of hay or wandering as close as we dared towards the lonely churchyard, until we screamed and ran home. “Late for tea again, Sarah-Jane,” our mother would scold; half smiling at me as we trooped in and I seated myself at the table, two of my four brothers on either side. I was the eldest: tall, blue-eyed, with thick sandy hair that fell down to my waist. Next came black haired, kind-hearted Alfred, only a year younger and my closest ally, Henry, a serious, thin-faced boy, Johnnie, a mass of freckles and wiry ginger hair and lastly little Tom, who followed us everywhere like an excitable puppy. A tarnished high-backed chair at the head of the table was treated with reverence. Particularly by Fred who often visualized himself seated upon it, “when I’m the head of the family”. The current owner of the chair, our father James was a tall, gentle man with light blue eyes the colour of the forget-me-nots that grew along our garden wall and coarse wavy hair of the same sandy shade as my own. In the summer his eyebrows and the ends of his moustache and trim, pointed beard would bleach blonde and his face would turn rosy from the long hours he spent outdoors, tending the gardens of grand houses that seemed a world away from the cottage. Households with uniformed servants with shiny boots, carriages drawn by immaculate white horses and (as I imagined), proud young ladies dressed in silk and pearls. Father’s expressive face often held an expression of restrained, yet delighted amusement at something he recalled. An expression that was a sign to us children of a wonderful treat to come as he reclined in his chair after supper, (clay pipe in hand), and began an exciting tale of news from the town. “I met Mister Cousins today, on the lane to Market Street and can you imagine what I heard?” Such questions would be followed by a deliberately protracted silence as we all leaned towards him in anticipation. “There was a carnival at Mill Town last week, with a strongman, a lion tamer and a real live elephant from India! But the elephant went mad with rage and escaped from its owner, I believe the Indians call him a Mahout. Ran right out into the street and straight into the vegetable market where it feasted on some cabbages!” Although we knew that tales such as this were embroidered and embellished for our entertainment and that the ‘elephant’ was most likely a donkey we hung on every word, with wide eyes and open mouths. The other member of the audience during these recitals in our kitchen, our mother Sally, after whom I was named was a slight dark-haired woman with large brown eyes that dominated her delicate face. Despite her fragile appearance she had a fiery temperament that manifested itself occasionally in a wave of emotion that rose and fell as quickly as an August thunderstorm. If Father fueled my imagination with his stories, Sally inspired me in another way. Despite experiencing little formal education, her natural curiosity and love for the wild, ever-changing landscape had compelled her to spend many hours studying and collecting the wild flowers that grew near her childhood home. As she grew older, she taught herself to sketch what she observed in chalks and pencils. Sometimes I would accompany her to a favourite spot: a small sheltered valley punctuated by mossy rocks and many types of heather. There I would sit at her side patiently watching in admiration as with a few strokes, smudges of colour began to transform into wild orchids, bluebells or clusters of cowslips. Many of these drawings would be used as reference for embroidered cloths and shawls, sold at the village shop and in the market at Riverton as a welcome support to the family income, with so many mouths to feed. During the harsh winter evenings when it was too cold to play outdoors, I would sit close to Mother, my stocky legs dangling off the edge of the coal-chest that doubled as a seat, my eyes following the hypnotic rhythm of the needle she held in her nimble fingers driving coloured yarn in and out of the piece she was working on. Ever so often the candle at her side would flicker, its flame creating a reflection that caused her needle to shine like a dancing firefly as it caught the light. Watching Sally work, or listening to Father’s tales on nights like these proved a comforting distraction from the wind as it whirled across the moors. I dreaded the moment when it was time to climb into my small cot in the corner of my parents’ room, (my brothers shared the only other room); where a patchwork quilt pulled over my head was my only protection from the terrible howling and moaning and rattling of window panes from which my vivid imagination conjured all manner of ghosts and malignant spirits. There I would lay motionless, clutching my doll companion Bessie, until tiredness overcame my fear and I drifted off to sleep. Not far from the cottage was a clearing where a river cascaded down from the moor and widened to form a circular lake, surrounded by a tangle of tall grass and overshadowed by a wiry willow that dangled its branches towards the dark green water like spider legs. On the far side of the water, set back from the water and obscured partially by a cluster of trees was a sprawling collection of limestone buildings that crowned the hilltop like a miniature town. Sometimes as we played by the river, the sound of children’s voices would drift towards us: “Is it a town just for children?” I wondered as I sat on the riverbank with Alfred, “with shops run by children and where children live without Mothers and Fathers?” Little did I imagine as these thoughts crossed my mind, whilst I absent-mindedly tossed pebbles into the murky water; that before very long this world of my imagination would become the centre of my young existence. 

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